Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

Sherrylee and I are taking a week of vacation, so I am going to use the opportunity to post some of my early blogs that many of you have not seen.  I hope you find them helpful and interesting.

From August 24, 2010

As I was writing, I was reminded of my sister-in-law Janet, who lived with her family in a pretty rough part of New Jersey for many years. Her children grew up walking and riding public transportation through city parts that would frighten lots of parents in more suburban settings.

She made it a practice as they walked out the door into the challenges of their world to arm her children with these words: “Remember your baptism!”

I was talking to a very good Christian friend recently, who was describing to me moments of doubt, doubt about whether he was good enough, doubt if he was the example he wanted to be to others, even a hint of doubt about his salvation.  He is sometimes angry about how his parents raised him to believe, and he is definitely angry about the great sense of guilt and eternal uncertainty that he received from the church he grew up in.

In an attempt to help this friend, I found Janet’s words to be perhaps the most appropriate thing I could say: “Remember your baptism.”

If you don’t really connect with these words, I suspect you grew up in the same kind of church I did, where baptism was unintentionally perverted.  Without impugning what was taught because we don’t always hear what was intended, here is what I learned about baptism:

  • The ritual act of baptism is what is most important.  This had to be because our preaching was all about immersion over any other form, about the age to be baptized, and occasionally about the words that were spoken by the baptizer. If any of these ritual elements were tainted, then most likely, the baptism was not effective. I have seen people baptized again because their arm did not go under the water with the rest of their body, because they were too young to understand everything they needed to understand, and because the person who baptized them did use the triune formula, rather just baptized in the name of Jesus.
  • Baptism was a rite of passage. You had to be 11-12 years old—anything younger and you were suspect. At baptism, you became a member of the church—which, if you were a boy, meant you could not only take communion, but serve communion and lead public prayers.  Girls could only take communion.
  • Baptism separated the saved from the unsaved.

At this point, you may be surprised to hear me say that I still have a very high view of baptism. I might even say I still believe the above—just much differently. Let me explain:

  • The biggest change in my theology of baptism is an understanding that it is all about what God does in baptism and less about what we do. Rather than “getting baptized” which is how it is generally described where I go to church, I wish we would talk about “receiving baptism” as I’ve heard in other churches. The first emphasizes the initiative and activity of the person, the second is more passive. The person is the recipient of the grace, created and extended by God through Jesus, separate and apart from anything we might do to earn it.
  • The symbol of burial and resurrection inherent in immersion is indisputably connected to the meaning of the sacrament. If you mess with the symbolism, you start opening doors to new understandings of the rite.
  • I still believe baptism is a rite of passage, but of passage from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from carnal to spiritual, from the old man to the new, from the old creature to the new creation, from death to life.

So, here’s the BIG question: does baptism separate the saved from the unsaved? The real answer is that the blood of Jesus separates the saved from the unsaved. He died to destroy Sin and was raised to bring Life.  As Paul said in Romans 6, those who participate in His death will share in His resurrection. Paul says, “Remember your baptism!”

  • Remember that you have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
  • Remember that your old life was buried in the tomb with Jesus.
  • Remember that you are new—not old or refurbished–resurrected!
  • Remember that you are not your own. You were bought with a price.
  • Remember that on the day of your baptism, God worked the miracle of salvation on you.

God says in baptism that He is for you!

And if God is for you, who can be against you?

That should be enough to get you through your day!

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Many Christians feel the painful tension between knowing in their hearts that other people in their circles need Jesus, and recognizing in themselves the overwhelming reluctance to do anything actively about it.

Motivational sermons make us feel even guiltier, instructional sermons don’t speak to our fears. Most of what is offered in our churches just makes us feel worse.  Typical churches today, probably concerned mostly with retaining their members, no longer talk about personal evangelism because it just makes people feel bad.

(Even as I write this, I find myself hesitating to use words like evangelism or personal work because they are not only outmoded, but also out of favor! Even the word mission hangs on a similar cliff of unpopularity.)

The Gospel story is so much about sharing, however, that this pain is still there, so we look for relief through less painful means.  For instance, tell me that you haven’t heard—perhaps even used—the following to relieve the pain:

  • Invite people to church, better to a social event at the building, and best, to something for their children.  That’s all you have to do.
  • Just live a Christian life in front of people, that’s enough.
  • Contribute to—at least pray for–someone else going somewhere else to share your faith.
  • Just do some good service in the community.

Don’t hear me wrong. These are all excellent activities for Christians, but if you are burdened with the passionate desire to share the story of Jesus with those who don’t know Him, these good deeds can all be unsatisfactory replacements.

What then would be required for you to find true relief from the painful tension of your heartfelt desire to share Jesus and the overwhelming reluctance to do so? What really keeps you from doing what you know to do and want to do?

Of course, I don’t know about you personally, but here are some ideas that I have thought myself and/or have heard from others attempting to describe what would free them to tell the Story:

  • I would be eager to share if I thought they really wanted to hear the story. I really don’t think they want to hear it, so I feel like my initiative is not welcome.
  • I would be eager to share if I thought I could share in a meaningful way. My fear is that I don’t know enough, or that they will ask me something that I can’t answer.
  • If they would just come to me and ask me, I would tell them. I just don’t know how to find out if they are even interested.
  • If I knew how to get from our daily conversation to a spiritual topic, I could probably do it, but I don’t know how to jump from one to the other in a way that doesn’t feel artificial.
  • I wish I had time to talk to people, but with all my (kids, activities, work, school), I never have a block of time to devote to it.  And doesn’t it take a long time to convert someone??
  • Isn’t this really the job of the ministers? I’m not really trained for it.
  • Isn’t everyone kinda already a Christian?
  • I know I should, but do you really think God is going to send anyone to Hell?  I don’t know if I believe in a God like that.
  • Politics and religion you don’t talk about with your friends or in polite company. That’s what I was taught.
  • I don’t want anyone telling me what to think, so how can I tell other people what to think?

Well, I’ve used all my allotted words listing our rationalizations—and probably could have used more. Search your own heart and add your words to this list, if you want.

With the next posting, I’ll offer you some better words, better options, and what, I believe, are true pain relievers for Christians who want to talk—but can’t.

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They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

In modern terms, how would you describe this man?  Try staying away from psychological/pathological terms and try finding normal words for how someone in your circle with these symptoms might be described.  Here’s my attempt:

There was a Guy who had a pretty normal childhood, but somewhere along the way, he got into bad stuff—made really bad choices. It cost him everything!  First, he lost his family and friends; he had no one who could deal with his demons, so he ended up by himself.  Then he just went out of control—no boundaries, abusive, into stuff that damaged his body and soul. Sure, some people tried to help with interventions and rehab, but he could not be contained. He broke away from all of that, deeply depressed, and continuing to do destructive things.  No one saw any real hope or future for this Guy.

6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” 8For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

One day this Guy is confronted on the streets by a random Jesus-person and it scares him to death! He first yells at this Jesus-person to get away, he threatens him and tries to intimidate him, but the Jesus-person just won’t go away. The guy says, “What do you want with me, man? You are killing me! I’m not like you. I used to be, but I don’t even remember what it is like to be like you—and it is too painful to even try!  Do you have any idea who I am?”

The Jesus-person says, “This is not who you are. You are full of the wrong stuff. Are you happy? Are you who you want to be?”

The Guy says, “I am who I am! I am nothing. I don’t know you, but you are killing me! Even if I tried, I can’t get back to where you are . . . . “

The Jesus-person replies, “You are right. Even if you tried, you couldn’t get back. But just listen to my story for a minute.” Then he covers the person with the love of God and the blood of Christ, destroying the old Guy and watching the creation of the New Guy.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis[c]how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

After a time, the Jesus-person needed to leave. The New Guy says, “I want to go with you! You are the best thing that ever happened to me—and I need you!”

The Jesus-Person replied, “I love you, brother, but you have a new task and a new message. You need to go home!”

The New Guy says, “There is nothing for me at home. Don’t send me away. I don’t have anyone!  I’ve hurt my family so badly, I can’t go back. They hate me!”

“You are not the same person. Go just introduce yourself to them again slowly. They probably won’t believe that it is you, but give them time. Tell them what God did for you!  Better yet, show them what God did for you. ”

“They will never believe me!  They’ll never love me again. They will never change”

Jesus-Person says, “That’s what you told me when I first met you. It is not you who will convince them. It’s the Story you are going to tell. If it can change you, it can change them too.”

So, of course, the New Guy went home—and what do you know—everything the Jesus-Person said happened. People were amazed.

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I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have heard someone say the equivalent of, “Don’t we have enough to do at home? Why do we need to go overseas? Shouldn’t we take care of our neighborhood first?”

When Sherrylee and I were newly married and committed to going to Germany with our newly-formed mission team, I asked a very prominent preacher whom I knew for help raising support. Without thinking about what the implications were, he said, “Man, if only you weren’t going overseas!” I mistakenly took this as criticism back then, but I know now that what he really was saying was that American Christians prefer to support local over foreign outreach.  Bad decision!

Remember how God allowed persecution on the earliest church in Jerusalem and “scattered” people, forcing them into other countries, even to the Gentiles (Acts 8:1,4,19-20). I don’t think He used the same technique with American Christians—although WWII was the real beginning (not the earliest) of foreign outreach in churches of Christ—but I do believe that He has worked in time and space in our day to wipe away our tepid excuses for not sharing the Good News with people different from us.

Look at this snippet from Wikipedia about U.S. Immigration:

As of 2006, the United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries in the world combined. Since the liberalization of immigration policy in 1965, the number of first-generation immigrants living in the United States has quadrupled, from 9.6 million in 1970 to about 38 million in 2007. 1,046,539 persons were naturalized as U.S. citizens in 2008.

If Christians hesitate to “go into all the world,” then why shouldn’t God bring all the world into our neighborhood?  It’s not punishment—it’s who we are and what we are about!!

Let’s Start Talking is best known probably for its short-term, overseas mission programs, but as early as 1990, LST was also training Americans to reach out to international students, immigrants, and non-English speakers in our universities and neighborhoods.  FriendSpeak is LST’s program for training churches to reach out cross-culturally in their own communities—and it is huge!

Rather than tell you about it, I want to give you a link to the Christian Chronicle which just ran an online article and asked for feedback from those who might have used FriendSpeak in their churches. Just click this link and you will see firsthand what can be done here at home for the whole world:


Local versus Foreign—not even a legitimate argument anymore—if it ever was. There is only, “Who can I talk to today—and who can I talk to tomorrow—and who will talk with those people over there?  Sure, I will.”

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Did Jesus come to “seek and save the lost” or to practice “pure and undefiled religion” by showing compassion on the helpless and needy?  Are Christians about declaring the Good News or about giving cups of cold water?  Does the word missional mean evangelistic or does it mean benevolent?

These are not new questions to those who are widely read in current religious thinking. You will recognize some of the tension brought to Christianity from what is generally known as the emerging church or emergent church movement of the last decade in the U.S., a movement that tries to exchange what they perceive as the “modern” (read rational) out of Christianity in exchange for a “postmodern” approach, one deemed more relevant for our current context.

Allow me to jump to some of the conclusions about evangelism from this movement without providing their arguments—because this is not an attempt to sort out the entire emerging church movement. Emergents generally believe that

  1. Evangelistic  Christians have focused too much on eternal redemption at the expense of living with compassion in the world.
  2. Conversation is more appropriate than proclamation.
  3. The interpretation of any message, including the biblical text, is a private matter.
  4. Insisting on boundaries that contain the gospel, the church or the saved offends, hindering  the spread of the Christian experience.

Bruce McLaren, a leading spokesperson for the emergent group, tells  me where these premises lead:

I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move. . . .   (Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2004) 260, 262, 264. )

As is often the case, the gravest danger in these premises  may not be in their fallacies but from their truthfulness.

  • When Christians do not love the world the way God so loved the world, our message is hollow. Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35). Preaching without works of compassion is absent of living proof. Compassion without preaching  is absent the Good News!
  • Conversation is often more appropriate than proclamation. The conversations of Jesus far outnumber the public sermons.  My fear, however, is that the Emergents are really not talking about public versus private, but rather about the truth of the content.  Whereas, proclamation speaks “as the oracle of God,” a conversation may be simply an exchange of similar (or dissimilar) opinions of equal value. Christians should know how to “speak the truth in love” whether publically or intimately.
  • One is tempted to equate the emergent argument of private interpretation with the modern American protestant version of sola Scriptura, which is every man with his Bible starting his own church on the street corner, but that would not be accurate. What this argument really reflects is the postmodern rejection of objective truth.  Since Jesus said he is the Truth, I do not believe Christ followers can hold to “private interpretation.  Neither did the Apostle Peter. (2 Peter 1:20).
  • Again, the Emergents are correct. Boundaries offend; exclusivity offends. Jesus offended. The Story offended. The Church offended. The Acts of the Apostles are full of offense by those who believed that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Understandably, it is the gloating and self-righteousness that Emergents see in Christians that pushes them to the opposite wall.

I live and work in a very evangelistic environment—in the traditional sense. The church I attend is also overtly and aggressively evangelistic—and I’m glad.  Yet even among us, it is not rare to hear watered-down versions of the Emergent heresies.  Kool-aid is watered down, but still can be poisonous. I’ll continue these thoughts tomorrow.

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The Pew Forum recently surveyed the changing religious scene in America, and although not highlighted, one of the obvious conclusions from the report is that most religious decisions, including conversion, abandonment, and switching, are made before a person’s 24th birthday.  (http://pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx)

My own experience is the same. Other workers in Germany often teased our mission team about not having planted a church, just a youth group! (Notice the just in that sentence!) We did have mostly children, university students, and young working adults.  But ten years after we began, we had a church of young marrieds, which after another few years was a church of young families. The church had matured into a vibrant community of faith.

Great churches focus evangelistic efforts on young people! Most churches focus on 30-50 year olds and then wonder why they don’t grow. Most people have already made their religious decisions and very few—comparatively—are in a searching mode any longer.  Here are my suggestions for focusing on young people:

  1. Every new church plant should be near a university and should include a campus ministry as one of its main thrusts. I would include a particular outreach to international students on that campus.
  2. Churches should plan events like camps, weekends, concerts, for highschoolers from the community, not just church kids (but these are great for church kids too!) These should have priority over gospel meetings, lectureships, and potlucks for adults.
  3. Worship services do not have to be completely focused on youth, but if your services are exclusively for the 50 year olds, then that is who you will attract (Not!).  What can you do for the teens/college-aged youth in your service?
  4. Youth mission trips should be a high priority for your church, and you should take non-Christian youth with you! There is no better evangelism than an unbeliever seeing a believer in action.
  5. Special Bible studies for youth—and not just a Sunday school class—are essential. Unaffiliated youth are not going to get up and come to Sunday school, but they might meet you at Starbucks on Thursday afternoon after school for a small group study.
  6. The minister and church leaders other than a youth minister MUST be involved with this outreach. Especially 18-24 year-olds want to be considered full members, fully adult, but in some ways, they don’t even understand what that means yet. Mentoring groups are great for this age group.
  7. Church budgets should reflect the emphasis on seeking young people.

I’m sure many of you have other ideas which I would love to see you share. Remember, I’m not talking about maintaining the church kids—although that will be a byproduct—but rather, reaching out to younger people during their age of decision.  If I were going to the mission field now, I would focus 80% of my time and energy on people 25 years old or less.

Question: What portion of your church’s time, resources, and energy are focused on evangelistic outreach to young people?

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